Covid-19

#Cleanergate: Domestic workers and the intimate geographies of lockdown

By Rosie Cox, Birkbeck, University of London, UK

In mid May, following the UK government’s announcement of a loosening of the rules of lockdown that would include ‘encouraging’ cleaners, nannies and childminders to return to work, an almighty row broke out on Twitter (where else?) that was later labelled #cleanergate.  This row was sparked by Guardian journalist Owen Jones tweeting:

If you are a middle class professional who, in these terrible times, has enough money to pay for a cleaner, please pay for them to stay at home. Don’t ask them if they’d like to come back like this. The power dynamic means they feel pressured to say yes, even though it’s unsafe.

Seemingly unaware that having to work in unsafe conditions was, very literally, disproportionately killing working class people because they are less likely to be able to work from home, journalist, Sarah Ditum entered the debate:

I don’t have more time in lockdown, I have less because I’m sharing my workspace with two teens and another adult. There’s more dirt, because of the more people. The cleaning is KILLING me and this is a bad take (emphasis in the original).

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The row, rapidly and in many ways predictably, escalated, even being covered by Grazia. Ditum and her supporters offered examples of how glad their own cleaners were to return to work and how good it was for working class people not to rely on ‘handouts’. Owen Jones countered with advice about how to use rotas to make teenagers do their share of housework, a contribution that was unsurprisingly attacked as ‘mansplaining’ housework to working women. It was, as the historian Laura Humphreys put it, as if ‘The Lady Magazine from 1895 learnt how to tweet’. This was old ground, albeit with a new, pandemic-flavoured covering.

Despite the longstanding nature of debates about who should do the housework and how grateful they should be to do it, #cleanergate taps into something important about the geographies of the Covid-19 lockdown. Being confined to our homes has both increased and exposed the amount of work that needs to be done to keep life ticking over. At the same time government instructions to stay home and only interact with members of ‘the household’ have raised questions about who is a member of a household and where ‘home’ might be for live-in domestic workers. 

Reflecting the way these questions have played out in the lives of domestic workers, the UK charity Voices of Domestic Workers has launched a hardship fund to support migrant domestic workers. They have found that some workers have suddenly been made jobless and homeless, while others have not been allowed to leave their employers’ homes to take time off. 

These experiences have been repeated around the world. For example, in India, domestic workers were meant to stop work and return to their own homes at the start of the lockdown but for many live-in workers this was not possible. There is evidence that some live-in workers were pressured to remain in their posts, for example by being threatened with the sack or withholding of pay. Legal scholars are concerned that the already very high rates of violence and abuse that female live-in domestic workers face will only increase during lockdown.

In an echo of a pandemic a century earlier, when one in four women who died from the Spanish Flu in Paris was a servant, domestic workers in Brazil have been among the first to die from Covid-19. It is thought that wealthy Brazilians who were able to holiday in Europe, are the people who brought the disease to the country, quickly passing it on to the domestic workers they employ who can then carry it to their own families and communities. Domestic workers are particularly exposed to the virus because they work in close contact with the children and elderly people they care for, travel long distances to work on crowded public transport and live in inadequate housing (Monteiro Lourenço and Garcia Castro 2020). 

At the start of the Covid-19 outbreak the Brazilian labour ministry asked employers to send domestic workers home but to continue to pay them. However, not all employers were prepared to do this, as Jurema Brites, a sociologist from the Federal University of Santa Maria, told the Washington Post, employing domestic workers is rooted in the Latin American history of colonialism and slavery and has become so naturalized that doing without it is nearly unimaginable. ‘For the wealthy, this type of work is intolerable,’ she said. ‘It isn’t dignified. It isn’t something done by them.’

The transmission of the virus from the wealthy to the poor in Brazil turns on its head traditional imaginings of servants as carriers of disease and sources of pollution. Yet the idea of domestic workers as both symbolically and literally polluting is an enduring one as many have discovered in recent weeks. Early in the Covid outbreak, I was approached by a group of au pairs who were worried about what would happen to them if there was a lockdown in the UK.  As live-in workers, being forced to stay and being forced to leave both presented risks for them. One of the group had already been evicted for coughing near the children she cared for, her host family telling her, as they made her unemployed and homeless, ‘our children are sick! You should be ashamed of yourself.’

Reflecting on the role of servants in the Victorian family, Jane Gallop described the maid as a ‘threshold figure’ existing somewhere between ‘within the family’ and ‘outside the family’. Today, domestic workers can still be ‘Others’ inside the intimate space of the home, problematic, liminal figures who blur boundaries. By making domestic work and domestic workers more visible, the Covid-19 lockdown has highlighted the enduring nature of this in-between status of domestic workers, unthinkable as separate enough from their employer’s household to need to be protected from contact with it, but also, too often, unthinkable as family members with the same rights to be protected or cared for. 

It does not have to be this way. Domestic workers and au pairs could be respected and protected as other workers are. There is no necessity for work done inside the home to be treated differently to other work. In 2011 The International Labour Organization (ILO) developed a convention on Decent Work for Domestic Workers, which called on its member countries to include domestic workers in the labour and social protections that existed for other workers. Since its introduction 29 countries have ratified the convention and 70 have taken action to improve the rights of domestic workers. There is still much more to be done to ensure rights exist in practice as well as on paper, the Covid-19 outbreak, in making visible domestic labour that has for too long being ignored, may offer an opportunity for this to happen.


About the author: Rosie Cox is Professor of Geography at Birkbeck, University of London. She researches geographies of home, dirt and domestic work. She is author of The Servant Problem: Domestic Employment in a Global Economy (2006 IB Tauris); co-editor with Ben Campkin of Dirt: New Geographies of Cleanliness and Contamination (2007 IB Tauris) and co-author, with Nicky Busch of As An Equal? Au Pairing in the Twenty-First Century (2017 Zed Books). Rosie is co-editor of the journal Geo: Geography and Environment

Suggested further reading

Schwiter, K., Strauss, K., England, K. (2018). At home with the boss: Migrant live‐in caregivers, social reproduction and constrained agency in the UK, Canada, Austria and Switzerland. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers https://doi.org/10.1111/tran.12235

Cox, R. (2013), House/Work: Home as a Space of Work and Consumption. Geography Compass. doi:10.1111/gec3.12089

Cox, Rosie (2016) Cleaning up: gender, race and dirty work at home. In: Lewe, C. and Oxen, N. and Othold, T. (eds.) Müll, Interdisziplinäre Perspektiven auf das Übrig-Geliebene. Bielefeld, Germany: Transcript, pp. 97-116. ISBN 9783837633276.

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